FRANK GRATKOWSKI TRIO at Tonic (10/18/01)

By Laurence Donohue-Greene

Reason enough to be in NYC. Not many, if any, other cities in the States can boast to the fact that they attract musicians of European residence at such a frequency as does New York City. Where else in the US can you see and hear Englishmen Elton Dean and Derek Bailey, American expatriates Michael Moore and Sonny Simmons, and multi-reedmen Evan Parker and Peter Brotzmann at the regularity that New York entices them? German-born multi-reed man, Frank Gratkowski, is another you can add to that never-ending and persistently growing list of frequent flying visitors.

Coming to the States for two weeks this past October, Gratkowski played several dates solo, with bassist Kent Kessler and percussionist Hamid Drake, and with his trio of John Lindberg (bass) and Gerry Hemingway (percussion). The last of those live events from his Stateside mini-tour found Gratkowski at the Tonic in Manhattan with the Anthony Braxton band-mates of String Trio of New York co-founder, Lindberg (who was with Braxton from '78-'85), and Hemingway (who played with Braxton for about a dozen years starting in '83). Though Gratkowski has yet to become a “name” per se, he is certainly making waves. Within European circles, in particular, he has been getting a fair amount of attention, deservedly beginning to pick up some steam here in the States. His resume boasts some wonderful sidemen dates accompanying Klaus Konig, multi-reedman Michael Moore (Tunes for Horn Guys), English free-jazz drummer Tony Oxley (Enchanted Messenger) and Russian born pianist Simon Nabatov (Nature Morte). And with already half a dozen recordings out under his own leadership, Gratkowski will assuredly be heard and appreciated by jazz and improvisational music fans here in the US as he is by his fellow countrymen and Europeans alike.

Primarily playing music from his recording, The Flume Factor (Random Acoustics, 1998), which also features Hemingway (who, by the way, is on at least two other Gratkowski-led sessions), the Tonic live session was presented in a double-suite fashion. The first suite featured two pieces from the Random Acoustics recording, “Epitasis” (Greek Latin for “stress”) and “Senga” (Agnes, Gratkowski's wife, spelled backwards), along with a third and final movement of his composition “Fenster” (translated as “windows” in German). The second suite was comprised of “California Roll” (dedicated to Michael Moore, the US born Amsterdam musician, and also found on the The Flume Factor), and another piece entitled “Feld 1” (i.e. “field one”, dedicated to Coltrane).

The introductory loose and free drumming of Hemingway's was reminiscent of Sunny Murray's peripatetic free-jazz style. The atonality of the trio transformed Gratkowski into a bird ready to take flight, and doing so via sound--being on his tiptoes, it seemed the anti-gravitational force of his playing was lifting him physically as well. His circular breathing created a temporary focus around Lindberg's bass, before the leader began frantically sucking his reed and plucking his mouthpiece in high volume. Hemingway, transitioned his way from sticks to brushes, as the percussion accompaniment settled the overall sound of a subtler and breathier Gratkowski trio while Lindberg bowed.

The trio created common sounds found in this never sleeping city. Most pedestrians don't even stop to think of the musical quality to city sounds (which they would otherwise simply disregard as noise), but Gratkowski's trio obviously has stopped to listen to the soundtrack of the city. From the subway and commuter trains, and the planes flying over head, to the echoing acoustics of Grand Central terminal--the trio created convincing musical translations to life in the big city, intentionally or not. Much credit in regards to this was due to percussionist extraordinaire, Gerry Hemingway, who continues to knock down any boundary anybody dares to place on him (for goodness sakes, one of his upcoming projects for Between The Lines records is a pop vocal record with an Ani DiFranco-ish vocalist named Lisa Sokolov!)

Where improvisational music is concerned, listeners may develop certain expectations before the first notes are actually played, inevitable as it may be. There are always, or usually if not hopefully, memorable events (for better or worse) from attending live concerts in particular. But, rarely is there a magical moment when you realize you are witnessing something you not only never had previously heard, but also never imagined fathomable. Hemingway provided several such occasions, as the city sound replications were indeed unique. One such occasion, in particular though, was an absolutely incredible effect he created as an echo to the literal effect of a 2nd reedman shadowing Gratkowski's hinted at notes on alto. All of a sudden, it was like a totally different instrumentation before your very own eyes, or at least ears! Seemingly able to create and reproduce just about any sound, Hemingway is deservedly an uncategorizable “percussionist” versus mere drummer, certainly in my book, and any other for that matter.

While Hemingway then began to lightly play brushes, Gratkowski moved over to his clarinet just before Lindberg (who like Hemingway has a new project, a string project at that, coming out on Between The Lines) re-entered into a hard boppin' groove underpinning Gratkowski. An inspiring clarinet solo preceded the free hitting and slapping Lindberg bass solo, while Hemingway ever so lightly supplemented a hardly noticeable background of occasional colors, unnoticeable to the naked eye but ever present to the listening ears. Taking a call and response duet with himself, Lindberg's arco parts were answered by plucked pizzicato. Eventually joining in again on clarinet during Lindberg's repeated bow run, Gratkowski and his partners so subtly complemented one another that sounds seemed to be coming from any of the three at any given moment. Hemingway's cymbal effect sounded like the slow bowing coming from Lindberg, as Gratkowski's clarinet met the tone of Hemingway to complete a figurative circle or triangle, if you prefer. Frantically writing upon his cymbal in cursive with a drumstick for a pen, Hemingway continued to prove his unorthodox style as one successful experiment followed another.

The seagull gone batty clarinet sound of Gratkowski morphed into a brief rhapsody of blue notes before switching over to alto sax, on which he surprisingly revealed his cool breathy Lee Konitz roots in a Tristano-like vein. With Lindberg walking, Hemingway swingingly played brushes in the tradition of Denzil Best and Art Taylor. Then moving into a less airy mode, the leader contributed more bright notes with Hemingway moving from his brushing accompaniment to head boppin' and toe tappin' stick figures. The three showcased an amazing sense of tradition and incredible personal and contemporary perspective from their collective understanding and respect of the various phases of jazz and improvisational music. The air was very fulfilling at that moment, having traversed through the previous challenging movement into this historic nod to the cool and bop pioneers with yet a remaining sense of modernity.

Gratkowski then plucked and popped his reed in a bongo-sounding manner, as guitarists Oscar Moore did with Nat Cole and Ray Crawford with Ahmad Jamal. Plucking and popping his strings, Lindberg (who lives in Saugerties near Woodstock, NY where such musical neighbors as Dave Holland, Baikida Carroll, and Karl Berger reside) then offered up his first unaccompanied bass solo of the set. He was soon mightily followed by Gratkowski, who marched forth with such a determination as if just let out of the gates. Anthony Braxton-ish, with the sublime creation of hefty and unwieldy notes, he covered the ever so low range of the baritone sax and even bassoon, something quite rare and daring from an alto saxophonist.

An intense classical cello vibe, in composition and playing, of Edward Elgar's “Cello Concerto in E Minor” rang through the small room as Lindberg grabbed two strings with his left while bowing with his right. And as would a classical timpanist, intently following his sheet music, Hemingway showed his evident timpani background in squeezing similar sounding tones from his kit. The Tristano vibe had, by this point, totally disappeared and was a far and distant memory. Spontaneously, Gratkowski, in a squealing tone that most may find more appropriate during a live session versus listening at home on a record or CD, was matched in duet by Hemingway in a full throttle battle of an intense reed and percussion exchange. Mind you, Gratkowski's playing and style successfully fuses the so-called “avant-garde” with more accessible qualities both on record and, obviously, live in concert.

Gratkowski squeaked and squonked his way out of a solo, while Hemingway rolled on his drums like a body musically falling down a spiral staircase--a staircase, mind you, a 100 floors worth! The amazing versatility of Hemingway proved itself once again, as he created continuous images through his playing, never staying in one place for longer than need be. Mouthpiece-less, Gratkowski blew through his clarinet, then alternated the horn-less mouthpiece in one hand with the mouthpiece-less horn in the other. As he then placed the mouthpiece down, he continued blowing into the body of the clarinet producing bamboo flute-like sounds. The end of the evening, after all was said and done, was brought to a peaceful conclusion following a tip of the hat to clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre by Gratkowski, though not after Hemingway played on his up-until-that-point neglected blow tube toy! 'Nuff said.

Do yourself a favor and check out Frank Gratkowski before everyone else on your block beats you to him and his records. Then maybe he'll come to your town, too.

Here's a good place to start:

Frank Gratkowski Trio - The Flume Factor (Random Acoustics, 1998)

Frank Gratkowski Quartet - Kollaps (Red Toucan, 2001)

Frank Gratkowski Trio - Quick Sand(Meniscus, 2000)

In the meantime, keep your ears open to the music...